Cold Earth Wanderers
Portraying a world ordered around such charmingly old-fashioned innovations like skyscrapers, elevators, and discs and containing no technology that couldn’t have been dreamed up in 1950, Cold Earth Wanderers often feels like a lost relic of mid-century science fiction, the kind of novel one might have found serialized in the pages of Galaxy. It is fast-moving, thoughtful, and often bitingly satirical, and while its plotting and vision of dystopia are not especially fresh, Wortsman brings a deft touch to the material that keeps the book briskly entertaining.
The novel is set in a future in which all the earth has been subdivided into numbered tower blocks on which are erected enormous skyscrapers extending miles into the sky and deep into the earth below. All humans are born into one of these blocks, where they will live out their entire lives, never having seen the outside world or any other building. The primary mode of transportation is the elevator. Accordingly, for most of humanity, the world exists entirely on a single axis. As is always the case with humanity, a society’s necessities of survival defines its morality. Thus, verticality is equated with goodness, horizontality with decadence and subversion. As in all regimes of thought control, the moral code is enforced by the police force (named the Institute for Vertical Thinking) and inculcated by the school system.
Into Block 367790 is born Elgin Marble, the son of an elevator operator (a highly respectable occupation) and a former horizontal parlor hostess (a very disreputable position). From an early age, Elgin exhibits signs of latent horizontal impulses, such as fashioning a train out of old tin cans. After assisting a desperate fugitive from an alien block, Elgin must flee his home and his mother. He ends up in a commune of “Crabs,” the nickname for the outcasts who seek to escape the control of society, hopefully by digging outward.
Cold Earth Wanderers is at its best when it is simply exploring its own world with a wry satirical eye. Wortsman takes on, among other topics, the corporatization of education through mandatory testing—“[R]eward the top ten percent and dispose of the bottom ten! Let the median battle it out! Thus mediocrity will become an anachronism and superiority pull the laggards to ever higher performance.”—the way advertising and government both thrive on making the populace feel insecure—“Don’t let a faulty chromosome stand in the way of your happiness and success!”—and the anti-intellectual conformity of the middle class—Gladys, the paragon of conventional thinking proudly describes her husband, Herbert, as “a little dense, but very vertical.”
In the novel’s best scenes, Wortsman excoriates the hypocrisy and hidden violence of the established order. In one scene, Gladys and Herbert cheer on their son, Herbert, Jr., in a game of DENT, a brutal sport obviously intended as a stand-in for high school football. At the end of the match, Herbert, Jr., plummets dozens of floors, but because his team won, Herbert, Sr., gazes proudly on his permanently paralyzed son and beams, “That’s my boy!” In another scene, Dr. Orion, the principal of Elgin’s school, visits a horizontal parlor, a kind of all-purpose den of sin, in which he gets his jollies by virtually touring the harshest penal colonies in human history: Andersonville, Devil’s Island, Auschwitz.
As the plot takes Wortsman further away from the dominant order and closer to the outcasts, the novel starts to weaken. Wortsman handles the plotting deftly, ably juggling three of four sets of characters, but these scenes are generally missing the biting satire that makes the beginning such fun. Similarly, while Wortsman’s description of the dominant order is engaging, his depiction of the subversives is a bit undercooked. The Crabs are portrayed as a democratic, quasi-anarchist community full of free thinkers and sexually liberated types. It all felt a little bit too much like Stranger in a Strange Land-era Heinlein for me, and, unfortunately, the ending only doubles down on the Heinleinianism.
Still, the basic structure of Wortsman’s novel is sturdy. The dominant order represents a single axis (the vertical), and, as we come to realize, the Crabs only represent a single axis either (the horizontal). It is only in love that the two are merged, and through their love, they produce a child, the third axis. Wortsman wisely avoids making this logic as explicit as I just did, but it is in there if you look, and, in the end, it offers hope for this crazy vertical world of ours.
Watson is a professional bureaucrat and amateur critic. He currently resides in a basement in Silver Spring, Maryland, though he grew up in a basement in St. Louis, Missouri.